A landlord-tenant relationship is a bit strange because you’re essentially sharing the same house
As told to Sara Bonchek
A few years after we got married, we bought our house. It came with a basement that had been turned into a rental unit. Though it can feel a little strange to have another family living right underneath you, we deliberately chose a house with a rental unit as the income it would bring in would help us cover our mortgage. It’s very common in our area, and right now, there’s a huge demand for basement apartments and not enough to go round, so it’s quite lucrative.
A landlord-tenant relationship is a bit strange because you’re essentially sharing the same house. “Landlord” is an ugly word, as if we’re lording over them, and has the negative connotation of cold-hearted people banging on the doors of starving families, demanding the rent and threatening to throw them out on the street.
We don’t think of ourselves in terms of landlord and tenant; we refer to our tenants as the downstairs neighbors and ourselves as the upstairs neighbors. Good communication is so important; being able to have a friendly, open, and honest discussion without sounding like you’re complaining or criticizing is crucial.
For the most part, having tenants has been a positive experience, financially and emotionally. But when we first moved in, there were already tenants there, a newlywed couple, and that turned out to be awkward, though we learned a lot from the experience.
Because they’d been there before us, they felt as though we were the intruders and that they really owned the place. From the very beginning they were hard to get along with. It was really important for us to have a good relationship with them, and we worked hard to achieve that. But as time went on, we realized we were never going to achieve a warm or even cordial relationship with them.
Luckily for us, after two years they moved out, and after they left, we started asking potential tenants for references so we could make sure they had a good track record with their previous landlords.
After that, we had a single girl, and hardly heard a peep from her. She was so busy studying and working, she was hardly ever home. She didn’t last long though, because she got married and moved to Eretz Yisrael.
Our next tenant was a single man in his late twenties. He was very nice, and we got along well with him, but unfortunately, the references we contacted didn’t give an accurate description. He wasn’t a Modern Orthodox medical student, as they claimed; he wasn’t frum at all, and on Shabbos afternoon he played loud music.
What he did in his own apartment was none of my business, but I felt he needed to respect our sensitivities and those of the neighbors. I had a very comfortable meeting with him, where I explained my concerns and asked him not to turn on the stereo on Shabbos. He was very respectful of what I said and followed through, but decided not to renew the contract the following year.
We now have a very pleasant young couple who we have a really good relationship with. As I said, communication is key. Not long after they moved in, they began banging on the ceiling with a broomstick whenever my kids got too noisy. I found that a little jarring and discussed it with her. She apologized and said she’d heard that’s a normal thing to do when neighbors get noisy. I told her I preferred if she’d just let us know, and she was happy to do that.
On our part, I make sure the kids don’t use scooters and riding toys or bounce balls in the house. Due to poor design, our playroom is right above the basement’s master bedroom. Because I know they don’t have children yet and therefore don’t rise early, I don’t allow the kids to play in the playroom until 9 a.m. If I do host an event or simchah in my house, like a siyum or a sheva brachos, I let them know in advance there may be extra noise until 11 p.m. or so. I think that’s just basic courtesy.
The basement is furnished, and we expect there to be normal wear and tear, such as broken appliances, stains on the carpet, etc. Before we return a deposit to a tenant who is leaving, we hire a professional to do a walk-through to assess if the wear and tear on the apartment is reasonable or a product of negligence, and then ask them to repair any damage based on the professional’s assessment.
We try to be very menschlich and make as few demands on our tenants as possible. I’ve heard stories of landlords insisting on inspecting the apartment every few weeks, and the other way around, of tenants asking their landlords walk around without shoes so they won’t hear the clickety-clack above them. Neither of these are within anyone’s rights to expect or demand.
Clarity on both sides is important. We stipulate what’s our responsibility to take care of and what’s theirs. For example, we have a drain at the bottom of the stairs leading down to the basement. We ask our tenants to be responsible for keeping the drain clear of leaves so it doesn’t back up, but a general sewage backup would be our responsibility.
When we drew up a contract, we consulted with a rav who’s well versed on the halachos of landlord-tenant relationships. We also put in the contract that we’d follow his psak if any issues arose and that we expect our tenants to do the same.
People sometimes ask me if it’s better to rent to tenants you know or to strangers. While there’s an advantage to having tenants you know because then you can avoid the reference-check stage, I think it’s always better to separate relationships and business. Before our current tenants moved in, we had 35 couples express interest in the apartment, and one of them was a client of my husband’s. We took him off the list right away. This is a delicate relationship, and you don’t want it to be any more complex than it has to be.
What I’d Want Tenants to Know
Read the details of the contract carefully. In our contract, we stipulate that you can’t have a day care or day camp in the unit because that would cause intense wear and tear. During the summer break, our single tenant advertised she was running a day camp, and by the time I found out and pointed out that this was a breach of contract, she’d already taken registration. In the end, my husband and I decided to be mevater, but it did put us in an uncomfortable situation.
Be in touch with previous tenants. No matter how quiet your upstairs neighbors try to be, at the end of the day, there will be some noise in a basement rental because you’re living under someone. As everyone has different noise-tolerance levels, I really recommend speaking to previous tenants to get a picture of what it’s like living under your potential landlords.
Know your rights. While there aren’t many things you can halachically and legally demand from your landlord, it’s important to be clear on what you can and cannot expect so that you don’t get taken advantage of, and conversely, don’t became a difficult tenant. Before you sign a contract on a rental, review your rights with a rav versed in these halachos and go over the contract with him.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 776)
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